Instead of a sermon this morning, I’m going to read the scripture lesson from the Gospel of Luke in line-by-line style and invite you to reflect with me on some of the questions that arise as we read it.
But before we do that, I want to provide a direction for your thoughts – they don’t have to go that way, but it might be helpful for our conversations in the chapel in a few minutes if we think about what the story might offer 21st century Christians, such as ourselves, who find themselves stretched thin between the demands of work, family, church and other civic organizations. Central to the lesson seems to be a relation between action and faith. How are they related? Is there a priority of one over the other.
But let’s begin at the beginning, at the home of a Pharisee.
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. We learn later in the story that the Pharisee’s name is Simon. Not to be confused with Simon Peter, one of the 12 disciples. This is important for picking up on what might be some sarcasm later in the story. Also, to set the scene properly we should realize that Jesus is not sitting at a dining room table, but reclining on a couch. This is important because the action in the story involves a woman washing Jesus’ feet. In other words, she did not crawl under the table. In fact, she may have been reclining with him on the same couch. We’ll get to that in a few verses.
Enter the woman:
And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. I have printed the lesson in your bulletin this morning, using the NRSV version. Generally a fairly good translation. But no translation is immune from cultural norms or biases. It is possible to translate htis hn en th polei as a woman in the city, but most references will tell you that it is a common euphemism and should be translated woman of the town. It would be an unusual formation if Luke were simply referring to a local resident. We have here a prostitute, as the later verses will make clear.
What I find curious about this formulation though is that Luke than had to add the parenthetical phrase, a sinner, after noting that she was a prostitute. One translater solved the problem by translating amartolos as having to do with her reputation. Perhaps it provides a convenient out for the story teller, who should otherwise not know that she is a prostitute?
Regardless, this unnamed woman:
stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. The text notes here that she was standing behind him. I’m not sure if this refers to an important physical placement or is instead a symbolic reference to her position vis-a-vis Jesus. I suspect the latter, given that it is nearly impossible to wash someones feet with your hair while you’ re standing. Either way, the story takes an unexpected turn here as she begins to weep. It seems unprovoked. Why is she crying? What is between Jesus and this prostitute? It’s classic storytelling. A quick setting, and then without further ado, right to a hook. Like all good short stories, there is nothing in here that’s fluff. All will be directed to helping us understand what is between Jesus and the prostitute.
Of course the Pharisee is a bit uncomfortable. Perhaps he too knows the prostitute. The text continues describing his uncomfortability.
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” A typical avenue for the story teller in the gospels is to move the story along by making Jesus seem miraculously prescient. He knows what Simon is thinking. And he’s not really very happy about it. In the Good as New Translation, Jesus does not just speak, he “turns to him,” indicating that he has turned from his previous focus, to address Simon. And he says, “I’ve got something to say to you.” Simon, annoyed by Jesus’ actions, says, “Allright, Teacher, let’s hear it.” As if to be saying, “OK, you think you can defend yourself from this situation, go for it.”
And it invites Jesus to speak words of wisdom — in his usual Socratic fashion. He tells a story.
“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Curiouser and curiouser, as they say. Now, added to a crying woman washing Jesus feet while standing, we have a story of economic jubilee. We remember as soon as I say that phrase, ‘economic jubilee’ that while no one really seemed to actually do it, it was the law of the land. Listen to Leviticus chapter 25:
You shall count off seven weeks* of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you . . . you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. . . .
Then comes the economic part of Jubilee
If anyone sells a dwelling-house in a walled city, it may be redeemed until a year has elapsed since its sale; the right of redemption shall be for one year. If it is not redeemed before a full year has elapsed, a house that is in a walled city shall pass in perpetuity to the purchaser, throughout the generations; it shall not be released in the jubilee. But houses in villages that have no walls around them shall be classed as open country; they may be redeemed, and they shall be released in the jubilee. As for the cities of the Levites, the Levites shall for ever have the right of redemption of the houses in the cities belonging to them. Such property as may be redeemed from the Levites—houses sold in a city belonging to them—shall be released in the jubilee; because the houses in the cities of the Levites are their possession among the people of Israel. But the open land around their cities may not be sold; for that is their possession for all time.
A seemingly innocuous little story — but one with a great deal of freight in the Hebrew world in which this was originally told. The fact of the matter is that Jesus did not even have to ask who was more appreciative. Simon gave airs of superiority because he considered himself not a sinner like that woman. But as soon as Jesus tells the story, his claim to righteousness has to come down. All Jesus had to do at this point was turn to the woman, which he did, and ask Simon to look at her to make his point.
Our story concludes, that point having been made, by making a further theological point.
I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
The point it makes is not the one that I think is typical. I sometimes peruse the children’s story links on preachers blogs. I rarely find them satisfying. Regarding this story, one author suggests that the woman comes to Jesus to be forgiven. “She was sorry for all the bad things she had done. She trusted Jesus to forgive her.” If that’s all the story amounts too, it is a rather pedestrian story with a rather un-Jesus like ending that makes no sense of everything else we’ve talked about.
But if the story is not about Jesus’ performance, then how do we understand the statements Jesus makes — “Your sins are forgiven” and “Your faith has saved you?” This is where it is helpful when you don’t know Greek to read a few different translations, where you might come up with an alternate — you sins have been forgiven — in an attempt to express the indicative tense of the verb. What this means is that Jesus states about that prostitute what we take for granted regarding our general experience of things — she has already heard about Jesus. Perhaps she has already met him, perhaps she has accompanied him on his travels about the countryside, preaching and eating with other “sinners.” She is weeping and washing Jesus feet with her tears because she has discovered in her previous interactions with Jesus, God and she is a grateful woman.
I asked if you might consider this story in the light of our ministry fair today. Let me close with a parable.
Its the story of a man, a celebrated theologian who began his ministry with a great deal of enthusiasm. His first job was not an ordinary one — he went as a missionary South Korea and served as an inner city minister to prostitutes. He worked with these women for seven years before he returned home. He came home after that time, because he experienced his first conversion. After seven years not one of the women he was ministering to came to him and said, I’ve been saved, or asked for a baptism, or anything like that. Seven years and no conversions, and then God finally got through and a miracle happened. God got through to Harvey Cox and helped him to see that his own self-righteousness, his own evaluation of himself as one or two pegs above the women he ministered, kept him from the very life he sought for them.
We are engaged in all sorts of ministries, some less glamorous than others. In all that we do, may we do it with eyes open to the beauty of the other be that other a prostitute at our Strawberry Festival or a family who can’t seem to get it together enough to pick up a free bagged lunch. Amen.